I first heard about The Towers of Tuscany when I met Carol Cram at the Historical Novel Society’s conference in London last September. Lake Union Publishing had accepted the novel and Carol was looking forward to the release of the book at the end of the year. Although the era the novel is set in isn’t a favourite of mine to read about, the premise of the story is intriguing so I’ve added it to my to-be-read pile. Meanwhile I’ve invited Carol to join me to answer a few questions about The Towers of Tuscany.
Welcome Carol. Let’s get started, shall we?
Tell us about your novel.
CMC: The Towers of Tuscany tells the story of a woman artist in 14th Century Italy during a period when there were no women artists—so far as we know. The key phrase here is “so far as we know.” In the 14th Century, painting was very much a family affair. The master who ran a workshop passed his knowledge down to his sons and brothers and nephews. But what if a master had no sons or brothers or nephews? What if he had a daughter—a bright, precocious child fascinated by the tools of the painter’s trade? I contacted an expert in art of the period, the wonderful Dr. Efrat El-Hanany who later became my historical advisor on the novel, and asked her if it was plausible that a man could teach his daughter how to paint. She thought that yes, the idea was plausible. That’s all I needed to dive in and invent Sofia Barducci—a young, spirited woman who makes a very big mistake. Unlike most girls of her era, Sofia is allowed to marry the man she chooses. Unfortunately, she chooses wrong. How many women have made that mistake? Sofia’s plight, although rooted in the prejudices and customs of 14th Century Tuscany, is not so different from the plight of many women all over the world in our own time.
What prompted you to write about this historical event?
CMC: I was intrigued by the art the 14th century. Painters were struggling with perspective, experimenting with fresco and tempera (no oil paints yet!), and starting to explore non-religious themes. I wanted to dig deeper into the psyche of a 14th Century painter to reveal their passions and their struggles.
How closely did you stick to the historical facts? If you used them loosely, how did you decide whether to deviate from them?
CMC: The novel is fiction; however, I was careful to make my settings as historically accurate as possible. All references to existing paintings and frescoes, such as those by Duccio, Martini, and Lorenzetti, are correct in terms of the time period and subject matter. I also refer to the historic feud in San Gimignano between the Ardinghelli and Salvucci families; however, I invented Messer Delpino and allied him with the Salvuccis. All the descriptions of the plague are adapted from Boccaccio’s Decameron which contains one of the only eyewitness accounts of the plague to have survived. In addition, all references to laws such as the law prohibiting women from wearing men’s clothing (and men from wearing women’s clothing) are historically accurate. My intention was to never use a fact that I had not verified; however, all the events related to Sofia’s story are fictional.
What research did you do for this book?
CMC: My research consisted of many, many hours flipping through academic texts related to the period (I LOVE university libraries!) and searching out primary sources. My most-used source was Cennini’s Il Libro dell’Arte, which played a huge role in teaching me about painting practices in the 14th Century. Written in the late 14th Century by Cennino d’Andrea Cennini, Il Libro dell’Arte is an amazing handbook for painters. Cennini advises painters about all aspects of the trade—from grinding pigments to making sizing from goat’s hooves to using gold leave to build haloes. He acknowledges the need for painters to have “passion and enthusiasm” for their work. A painter in the 14th Century did not consider himself an “artist” as we would use the word. A painter was a craftsman who served a long apprenticeship to learn the skills of the trade. Painters were also businesspeople who, with their painted panels and frescoes, made important contributions to religious and secular life in the 14th Century.
In addition to reading books and poring over source materials, I spent a great deal of time just looking at reproductions of the paintings and frescoes of the period. The historical novelist can learn a great deal about the dress, customs, and physical appearance of people by studying the art. For more information about the art that influenced Sofia and The Towers of Tuscany, readers can check out the Art Guide on my Web site: http://carolcram.com/art-guide/
Over the past two decades, I’ve visited Italy several times on family trips, but in 2011 I made a solo trip to Tuscany to research The Towers of Tuscany. I spent many happy hours wandering the streets of San Gimignano and Siena, where the novel takes place. I also visited several art galleries, most memorably the Vatican Museum in Rome, the Uffizi in Florence, and the Pinoteca in Siena. In San Gimignano, I also visited San Gimignano 1300—a museum that includes a scale model of how San Gimignano looked in the year 1300. What a gift to an historical novelist! I spent an amazing morning examining the model from all angles and talking with a lovely young guide who good-humoredly answered as many of my questions as she could. Readers who visit San Gimignano should put San Gimignano 1300 high on their list of things to see: http://sangimignano1300.com/eng/index_eng.html
Do you use a mixture of historic figures and invented characters in the novel. Which is more difficult to write? Which to you prefer to write and why?
CMC: I did not include historic figures in The Towers of Tuscany. As mentioned above, I occasionally referenced an artist who actually existed, but the artist never made a physical appearance in the novel. I included historic figures in my second novel (A Woman of Note to be published in 2015), but only in supporting roles. I don’t think an historic figure is necessarily any more difficult to write than a fictional character. In some ways an historic figure is easier to write because the writer already knows what the person looked like and something about his or her personality. However, I have yet to include an historic figure in a leading role, which I’m sure would be much trickier!
In an historical novel you must vividly re-create a place and people in a bygone era. How did you bring the place and people you are writing about to life?
CMC: I visited the locations where the novel takes place and spent many hours poring over the art of the period, then in my imagination transported myself to the locations and wrote what I saw. I don’t think people’s motivations, hopes, desires, etc., have changed much over the centuries. The most important—and challenging task—is to make the characters real and believable. Sofia may have lived in the 14th Century, but she’s not so different from anyone in our own time who is consumed by a passion to produce art. What Sofia wore, ate, worshipped, etc., are all important to “get right,” but I think readers care even more about identifying with her and finding out what happens to her. That said, I love the challenge of setting a character in an historical setting and weaving in the beliefs and world views of the period.
There often seems to be more scope in historical novels for male characters rather than female characters. Do you prefer to write one sex or the other. And, if so, why?
CMC: The Towers of Tuscany is the first in a series of three novels about women in the arts. I’m intrigued by the untold stories about women, particularly women who engaged in artistic pursuits such as painting, music, and acting (the subjects of the three novels). Women may not figure large in currently recorded history, but a little bit of digging reveals just how influential women have been throughout the centuries. Well of course they have! The 21st Century didn’t invent strong and talented women. In my second novel (A Woman of Note), I tell part of the story from the point of view of a man, but the central character is a woman. Perhaps in later novels, I’ll include more male characters in central roles; it depends upon the story!
Thanks for answering my questions, Carol. I look forward to reading The Towers of Tuscany. Readers can learn more about Carol and her writing by visiting her website.
About Carol M. Cram: She is the author of The Towers of Tuscany, an historical novel about a woman painter in fourteenth century Italy. In addition to writing fiction, Carol has enjoyed a great career as an educator, teaching at Capilano University in North Vancouver for over twenty years and authoring forty-plus bestselling textbooks on business communications and software applications for Cengage Learning. She holds an MA in Drama from the University of Toronto and an MBA from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland. Carol is currently focusing as much of her attention as she can spare between walks in the woods on writing historical novels with an arts twist. She and her husband, painter Gregg Simpson, share a life on beautiful Bowen Island near Vancouver, Canada.